Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard recently estimated that the health care costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over the next five years will be $315 billion. Does that sound correct?
"I don't know. I really don't have a way of validating those numbers. But he (Stiglitz) is an authority and I would accept that. I'll take a look at it. Estimates about (long-term cost) is a great question. There are two children of Civil War veterans still on our beneficiary lists. Abraham Lincoln's promises are (still) being delivered. A hundred years from now, the same will be said by some future (VA) secretary of President Obama's time in office. So when we talk about this estimate looking forward, I don't think anybody can anticipate the long reach of these obligations."
As a matter of national policy, should decision-making to commit military forces include an assessment of the projected costs to the nation of caring for the combat veterans of that contemplated war?
"The thought about that as being part of the discussion is probably reasonable. … Under this president, I would probably have that opportunity in the initial stages to do that."
What about this job keeps you up late at night?
"There's lots to be done. And always there's the (unexpected) pop-up that no one saw coming. A good example, I came in focused to work on the backlog in 2009. The pop-up was the G.I. Bill. Suddenly it's all hands on deck to make that happen. And working on the backlog had to take second place. It's that kind of environment. It's not that things are not solvable — maybe the back log is, I'm going to find out. (But) if I am up late at night thinking about what to do next, it's how to get momentum out of all the initiatives that we've put out there. … (It's) not enough hours in the day to get done what I think needs to be done."
You mentioned during your confirmation process that secretaries usually have a shelf life of three years. You've been on the job for two. Are you going to stay for the rest of Obama's term?
"I'll stay for as long as this good man or President will have me. I truly serve at his pleasure. This is a wonderful opportunity. Not often in life do you have do-overs. For me this is a do-over. I get to look after kids I went to war with 40 years ago. I get to care for kids I sent to war as (Army) chief, and then I get to care for veterans who raised me when I was a young pup from World War II and Korea. Everybody looks for that purpose-filled life. I've got one."